27 November 2007

Ethics and legal aspects of Computer Technology and search engines

[University of abertay]








Ethics and legal aspects of Computer Technology and search engines

ELPP Coursework 2


Rahmad Evan Purnawan




Linda Archibald








Ethics and legal aspects of Computer Technology and search engines


    Internet, which was first developed in the beginning of 1960's from internetworking computers became more and more popular as a communication tool in the world. It can provide a lot of information for the people. Most of them do not know how the search engines work to search, classify and display the information we need because the creator put the codes behind the pages. Some search engines put in codes to monitor users' behaviour and store the information in databases. So, search engine developer can analyse and develop their tools for better performance which can attract more users.

    The rapid development of the internet, especially search engines, which provide new choices and actions, need to be followed with ethics: how do we create, develop and use the new technology? Of course, we should consider issues such as users' privacy and users' information.

This essay will explain how the search engines work and how they monitor and store users' behaviour for market information; it will also discuss the ethical and legal aspect of using users' personal information by the search engines for their development or marketing purposes.

    The development of search engines and placing relevant products advertising are done by monitoring users' activities when they use search engines or visit certain websites. Fielden (2002, p.53) claimed that "users are identified by electronic tags in cookies which are saved in the users' computer with a specific identification codes. This code can be used to access a behaviour profile in database." By analyzing the database, search engine developers can determine the important things to be added or reduced in search engines and make the relevant advertising method for the advertisers.

    Occasionally, we receive emails which have links to a website offering benefits if we join by filling in some forms. We fill in the form with our personal data such as age, gender, job, salary and interests. The web collects a large amount of personal data as valuable assets which can be offered to another marketing firms or companies. According to Reynolds (2007, p.123) "Marketing firms want to know as much as they can about consumers, then they offer the data to the company so they can tailor their products and services to individual consumer preferences."

    However, consumers' data can be used in harmful ways. Many companies offer some discounts if users fill in a form which is provided by their web pages. A day later emails arrive offering unwanted products, and consumers are not aware that their information is being collected because they have not been informed. Furthermore, the companies share or sell the data to others without any consent from the owner. These situations will create tensions between companies and their consumers.

All the processes in the search engines are invisible. According to Baird (2000, p.23) "the invisibility factor generates policy vacuum how we use computer technology. Beside that it gives us more capabilities and choice for action". Is it ethical if search engines monitor users' activities without any acknowledgment and using users' hard disk to save data for their purpose or sell information about users' behaviour in order to get money from marketing companies? According to Spinello (2000, p.110) "from a moral perspective, the primary issue appears to be the consumer's loss of autonomy".

    Computer technology is a new technology, still being developed until now and as a new technology, it has some considerations. Firstly, in the beginning it was very unpredictable because businesses developed it continuously and quickly. Secondly, it has an impact on morality because it has to interact with other people. Thirdly, it makes traditional moral practices out of date as traditional norm; principles lose their force or become irrelevant. Bynum (2004, p.325) argued that "Actions in cyberspace will not be local but global," bad actions done by someone in other continent will have bad affects to another people who live in a small village in Scotland, so to know who is responsible to catch him/her will be more difficult because of facing different barriers of law, culture and language.

    As a new technology, computers have uniqueness. Johnson (2000, p.14) argued the "computer has uniqueness because it makes new entities such as programs, software, websites and programmers, then it changes scale of activities because in its era everyone can make activities have bigger and wider effect for humanity and it increases scale of calculations," for example it is easy to know the exact day in the past future. So, it needs new ethical parameters which are respected by the creators or users.

    Ethical and legal factors should also be considered because the computer technology gives new opportunities to earn money by displaying advertising for products or services to the users who visit the websites or use search engines. Everyone is aware this chance includes two biggest companies Microsoft and Netscape. Without any regulations it will be a threat for all users'.

    As a result, in 1998 all European countries agreed to execute a law that purchasing and selling personal data was prohibited which was known as EU Directive of Data Protection. The main goal of this law is to prohibit the companies using information about their customers which they did not want to, such as selling customers' information to other companies to be used as a marketing tool.

    An earlier act was passed in the USA which known as The Privacy Acts 1974 which regulates Federal Government in using personal data. In short, Federal Government has to inform the public about databases, allow people to access their own data and make corrections, protect the databases and not use the information without any consent from the owner (Baase 1997, p.49).

    The Association Computer Machinery (ACM) also makes a regulation applied by its members and this code is supplemented by guidelines. As a member of ACM they should contribute to society and human well-being which means the profession must ensure their product will be used in a socially responsible way, avoid harm to others by reducing malfunctions by implementing standards in designing and testing, be honest and trustworthy, be fair and take action not to discriminate, honour property rights including copyright and patent, give proper credit for intellectual properties, respect the privacy to others and honour confidentiality (Erman, Shauf, 2003 p.23).

    Everyone who uses computer data in European countries should follow a regulation which is known as The EU Data Protection Directives 1998. This regulation states that data must be fairly and lawfully used for limited purpose and processed in accordance with data subjects' rights; it must be secured and cannot be transferred outside European region without adequate security. This regulation is important because there are so many computers related users or workers in this region in order to ensure that data are properly used without harm other people.

Preventive actions also should be taken to avoid personal data being improperly used or to harm people. Szuprowicz (1997, p.53) argued that "User monitoring is critical in selling web advertising; users of search service should be aware of this activity for their own protection." For instance, such important information should never have been in public or online databases and include Social Security Numbers which are linked to wealth and sensitive information and mother's maiden name which is used for identification verification at bank and other financial institutions.

In conclusion, computer technology and its derivatives like search engines is a new technology which has new abilities in making actions. it will influence other people for good or bad depend on the purposes of its creator. So, new regulations and ethics should be implemented for this technology to clarify and ensure what is constructive or destructive, right or wrong in search engine implementation. Some countries have made a certain regulation for this issue, but because its global effect or technology, the global regulations are needed which are followed by all the countries in the world. The ethical and legal aspects of computing and internet may be included in the national curriculum of basic education.







  1. Baase, S., 1997. A Gift of fire, Social, legal and ethical issues in computing, New Jersey, USA, Prentice Hall.
  2. Baird, R.M. 2000. Social and moral issues in the computer age, USA, Prometheus Books.
  3. Bynum, W. B. Rogerson, S. 2004. Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility, India, Blackwell Publishing.
  4. Erman, M.D. Shauf, M.S. 2003. Computers, Ethics and Society, New York, Oxford University Press.
  5. Fielden, N.L. Kuntz, L. 2002. Search Engines Handbook, North Carolina.USA,Mc. Farland & Company.
  6. Johnson, G.J. 2000. Computer Ethics 3rd Edition, New Jersey: USA, Prentice Hall.
  7. Reynolds, G.W. 2007. Ethics In Information Technology, USA, Thomson Course Technology.
  8. Spinello, R. 2000. Cyber Ethics, Morality and law in Cyberspace, London, Jones and Bartlett Publisher Inc.
  9. Szuprowicz, B.O. 1997. Search engine technologies for the World Wide Web and Intranets, South Carolina, USA, Computer Technology Research Corp.



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